The crowd on the wharf anxiously watches the motionless ship across the water. No one was more anxious than Mr. John Hammond whose wife, Janey, was aboard the ship. Checking his watch, pacing, engaging all those gathered in conversation, Mr. Hammond kept everyone in high spirits, more or less, while scanning the deck of the ship for signs of his wife.
In appearance Mr. Hammond was a handsome, middle-aged man, dressed well in a fitted gray overcoat, obviously rich. He had a habit of twirling his folded umbrella and once the dusk began to settle in he thrust his umbrella outward as if to ward off the night.
The small crowd had been waiting over two hours for the ship to come into port. A doctor had rowed out when the ship arrived but had not yet returned. Something was obviously wrong and Mr. Hammond tried not to imagine the worst. Janey had been away for ten months, visiting their eldest daughter in Europe who had married the year before.
A little girl nearby cried to her mother that she wanted tea. Mr. Hammond anxiously imagined his Janey doing without tea onboard the ship. He knew she was probably on deck now, waiting just as he was, for the ship to come in. He imagined there was no one to fetch Janey her tea and envisioned himself doing it, watching her little hand hold the cup in the special way that she had.
Frustrated by the whole situation, Mr. Hammond walked to where his driver waited with the car, paced some more, and then playfully lifted the little girl who wanted tea onto a barrel. The little girl cried out that the ship was coming in. Mr. Hammond, in his excitement, abandoned the little girl and made his way over to Captain Johnson. The captain had come to shore on a separate boat.
Captain Johnson dutifully reported that Mrs. Janey Hammond was well and on board the ship. Mr. Hammond was ecstatic and thanked the captain for his service and gave him a handful of his own good cigars. Mr. Hammond made his way to the front of the crowd and waving enthusiastically with his hat, he searched the deck for Janey. He did not see her but then caught sight of a white handkerchief. Brandishing his umbrella he a cut a path to the ship and saw it was Janey and she was waving her handkerchief at him. “…thank God, thank God! -there she was. There was Janey. There was Mrs. Hammond, yes, yes, yes” (130) shouted his inner monologue.
After the gangway was in place Mr. Hammond rushed forward and only out of gentility allowed the captain to board first. Mr. Hammond made a beeline for Janey and she was in his arms at last.
In her little voice, “the only voice in the world for him” (131) she asked if he had been waiting long and he said he had not and wanted to get off the ship as quickly as possible so they could go back to the hotel. Janey had other plans. She spent a good amount of time saying goodbye to all of the friends she had made on the journey. Mr. Hammond was proud to make note of his wife’s popularity. Then they went below deck to Janey’s rooms. Here Mr. Hammond was filled with delight at the sight of the place that had been his wife’s home during her passage. He saw her luggage and the tags labeled “Mrs. John Hammond” and it gave him such a thrill. He wanted nothing more than to be alone with Janey.
Unfortunately, Janey wanted to speak with the doctor and rushed out to do so, leaving Mr. Hammond behind. Immediately growing suspicious, Mr. Hammond thought Janey had been ill and was keeping bad news from him. Janey returned and after he accused her being ill, she placed her small hand on his large chest and in a quiet voice reassured him that she was fine.
Mr. Hammond sighed in relief. Janey was back, she would take care of everything, as she had always done. All was right with his world again. Mr. Hammond embraced his wife. His love for her was so great but as usual, he felt as if he were holding something that was not his, and that she could fly away at any moment. Wanting to be alone with Janey at the hotel he rang for the luggage and they disembarked.
Soon they were in the car and driving. He lovingly placed a blanket over them both and said he had made all of the travel arrangements and they were to leave the next day. Janey asked after the children several times about Mr. Hammond was not to be distracted. He held her hand and watched her and did not notice when she gently took her hand away.
In their hotel room, Mr. Hammond had arranged for a fire to be lit in case Janey was chilled from the journey. He tried to take her in his arms again, but letters from their children distracted her. She suggested she read them now and get it out of the way but Mr. Hammond was anxious to have her all to himself. Janey asked if he would go downstairs and get room service so they might have tea but again Mr. Hammond was not to be distracted and jokingly accused his wife of wanting to send him away.
To this remark Janey only shook her head and smiled. Mr. Hammond took her and placed her on his knee, he sat back in a chair and held her, lovingly but as always, he felt as if she were always on the brink of flying away. He asked that she kiss him and she did but something was wrong.
She laid her head against his broad chest and they sat there a moment in silence. Mr. Hammond asked her if she were tired, if everything were all right. Janey did not answer and so he bounced his leg up and down and she told him to stop and said that a man had died on the ship the day before.
Janey said the reason the ship was so late coming into port was because it took so long for the doctor to determine what happened to the man. Her voice fell and she said the man was young and had died of heart complications. Janey’s hand fell away from her husband’s chest and she said that the young man had died in her arms and they had been alone together.
Mr. Hammond began to panic. “Ah my God, what was she saying! What was she doing to him? This would kill him!” (136.) Janey said the man died very peacefully and there was nothing a doctor could have done to save him. They had met aboard the ship, he was a first class passenger and had been ill for sometime but he had seemed so much better until today. He had some sort of attack before the ship arrived, nervousness perhaps or excitement. He had not recovered and was too weak at the end to even lift a finger.
“You don’t mind, John, do you? You don’t- It’s nothing to do with you and me” (137) but Mr. Hammond did mind but he could not bring himself to say it. He thought madness lay in thinking about what she said, not only the implications of his wife being alone with another man but of the man being too weak to move and yet he died in her arms. She had never in all of the years of their marriage reached out to him first. He was the one… but he stopped himself.
Janey played with his tie and said that she hoped that her confession would not get in the way of their evening of being alone together. Mr. Hammond hugged her closely in order to hide his face and thought they would never be alone together again.
"The Stranger," written by Katherine Mansfield, was first published in January 1921 in the literary magazine the London Mercury. Set in an undisclosed seaside town in New Zealand, the protagonist, Mr. Hammond, anxiously awaits the arrival of his beloved wife, Janey, who has been separated from for several months while she traveled. Told from the third person perspective, from a male point of view, Mansfield examines the theme of marriage and questions the dynamics of the marital relationship when in conflict.
Mansfield, a modernist, often began her stories in medias res. She purposely neglects to introduce character backgrounds or descriptions of setting. In doing so her stories appear episodic, revealing characterization as the plot progresses. The use of the male perspective is typical for the time period but unusual for Mansfield who preferred to write from a female point of view especially when examining gender roles in relation to family dynamics. As a result, Mansfield’s portrayal of Mr. Hammond at times leans more toward the absurd as he attempts to reconnect with his wife.
As a character Mr. Hammond is often anxious, impatient, and stiflingly possessive of his wife, Janey. He marks her every movement, her voice inflections, and her body language but fails to see how she is distancing herself from him both physically and emotionally. Mansfield’s interpretation of Mr. Hammond is so absurd at times that he becomes a caricature or of the doting husband desperate to please his wife. Although Mr. Hammond’s devotion to his wife seems genuine, there is an undercurrent of attention seeking behavior, a neediness that masks his overwhelming desire to possess Janey body and soul. Mrs. Hammond, in turn, resists her husband’s attempts at intimacy. This prompts him to try harder, fueling a growing suspicion that something is wrong or different about his wife. Unable to accept her growth of character or a lapse in judgment, depending on your interpretation of Janey’s confession toward the end of the story, Mr. Hammond feels his marriage is in jeopardy.
Marriage, a reoccurring theme in many of the stories within The Garden Party and Other Stories is central to "The Stranger." Mansfield pointedly refers to the main characters as Mr. and Mrs. and establishes a tone of wary expectation when Mr. Hammond is waiting for his wife’s ship to come in. He tells everyone gathered at the dock all about Janey and how proud he is of her, and how he will soon be reunited with her. Mr. Hammond is both excited and expectant, assuming Janey will be exactly as he remembered her. Yet he senses something is wrong once they are alone together, despite her reassurances to the contrary. He does not posses the wherewithal to separate his desperate desire for physical contact with his need to protect and care for Janey. Marriage to Mr. Hammond is akin to ownership; he loves his wife but years to possess her. Janey in turn, seems to find her husband’s over-attentiveness draining and yet she seems unsurprised by his behavior. She submits to his will only to a point and then withdraws. The marriage does not seem unhappy and Janey is obviously devoted to her family but she has spent months away from her husband and her feelings have changed. Perhaps she found that she enjoyed her solitude while away, delighting in the freedom of being just Janey and not Mrs. Hammond. To Mr. Hammond signs of independence or the feeling that Janey is always on the verge of flying away from him prompt him to hold her tighter, become even more possessive of her time, her body, even her mind. In doing so he only serves to drive her farther away. Too caught up in his own desire to posses Janey, Mr. Hammond is blindsided by her confession.
There are several interpretations concerning Janey’s confession. On the surface, Janey’s admission to having been alone with the young man when he died is an act of compassion. Janey had made many friends during her long journey on the ship including the young man. She knew that he was ill but thought he was getting better. His death shocked and grieved her. Janey knew that Mr. Hammond would be jealous of her interaction with the young man; however innocent, and chose not to tell him until he pressed her for details. A different interpretation suggests that Janey had a sexual relationship with the young man throughout her journey. That was why she was with him, alone, when he died. Most scholars believe this interpretation to be too crude especially for Mansfield. The most prevailing interpretation is that Janey did befriend the young man on board the ship and knew of his illness. They were friends and she somehow managed to be with him when his heart gave way due to his condition. Mr. Hammond feels betrayed by Janey not because she was the young man’s friend, but rather because she chose to hold him as he lay dying. Janey never reached for Mr. Hammond first. He always initiated any intimacy between them and always felt as if he could not reach the part of Janey withdrew from his embrace. In death, the young man achieved what Mr. Hammond could not. She embraced death, open to the one circumstance that Mr. Hammond could never control in their relationship. Time and distance may separate them momentarily but death is eternal and he fears he will never experience such a binding and intimate moment with Janey as she had with the young man.